Douglas W. Milliken: Chestnut v. Buckeye

Not everything was always a travesty. There were some mornings we’d wake up to discover deer milling about the yard, usually five or six but sometimes a dozen of them browsing for sweet clover or foraging fresh rot from the compost, you know, going wild on our domestic larder. Now and again in the fall or wintertime, they’d be a little farther along in the small orchard of witchy trees we kept, balancing all wobbly on their hind hooves to nip punky apples from the limbs. Those times, if they got spooked—like if my fat old dog got out and started barking and chasing after them—they’d stagger all drunk, almost crab-walking as they stumble-ran for the pines. I remember, most mornings they’d show up, we’d just sit there and watch them, my mom and the Dickhead and me, none of us talking while we sipped our coffee or whatever, chewed our cereal, all three of us gazing steadfast through the fly-specked kitchen windows. Which I guess was as close as we ever got to wholesome family time. No one talking. No eye contact. Tipper Gore would have been proud. When he got a bit older, the Dickhead would buy horse feed from the grain store and slosh a little here and there in the grass like a tasty candy treat for the deer, I guess so maybe they’d stay longer, come more often, I don’t know. But that was a long time after I’d gotten out of there. Still. Such a tender act for the same mirthless cocksucker who once whipped my naked calves with a snapped serpentine belt because I tripped over the Bartles & Jaymes he’d parked in the grass. Who forced my brother Ro out of the house at sixteen after years of threats and pistol-waving and tedious innuendo. Who got drunk and blew dope and slept around like the most boring and predictable chestnut, swaggering home blood-eyed and stinking to gift Mom some new dose of v.d. The Dickhead’d watch their bay necks extending through east-lit mists—their black and unreadable animal eyes—with an admiration verging on love. It’s the closest example I can recall of the Dickhead caring about anything that wasn’t him. Spilling sugared oats in the grass. The tending to wild dumb beasts. Yet each November, when the time was right, he’d without fail shoot one lured buck through its elegant, tawny throat. Blood so red it looked black against the fur while powder-burn hung blue in the air. The obvious result of the Dickhead’s love. A man has got to eat.

Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and several chapbooks, including The Opposite of Prayer, and, most recently, In the Mines. His stories have been honored by the Maine Literary Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and Glimmer Train, as well as published in dozens of journals, including Slice, the Collagist, and the Believer, among others.